Many of us sprint from professional responsibilities to family ones, or struggle to fit in time for the gym, a social life, and personal interests in the face of long work hours. Anyone in these hectic scenarios knows what a difference small conveniences can make, let alone big ones. As a growing number of universities offer quality online degree programs, would-be students who believed their busy schedules prevented them from returning to school are discovering otherwise.
The unmatched flexibility of virtual learning makes higher education more accessible than ever. Remote classrooms and prerecorded lectures, among other conveniences, allow students to save valuable hours in travel and plan coursework according to their own scheduling needs. While students can benefit greatly from online degree programs, as with any new learning environment, virtual classes can take some getting used to. By following key tips for taking online classes, students can get the most out of their degree programs.
Schedule Your Time Strategically
Online classes give students a great deal of flexibility, but with that flexibility comes more responsibility. Instead of listening to lectures, completing in-class assignments, and participating in discussions during preset timetables, virtual students must block out sufficient time for these activities on their own. They also need to allot time for studying.
Some students can find this challenging. However, by coming up with a customized time management system, students can both keep up with their coursework and avoid some pitfalls typical of online study, such as procrastination.
Audit Your Time
Before creating a time management system, students should map out their commitments outside of school and the weekly hours those commitments consume. This allows students to clearly visualize the time they have available for classwork and studying.
With this information, students can establish personalized timetables that outline when they’ll listen to virtual lectures, work on assignments, contribute to discussion forums, and prepare for exams. Students may also want to think about how to prioritize tasks, how much time to devote to individual assignments, and how to divide up their work.
For example, students may decide that it makes the most sense to split up reading assignments over several days, or they may determine it’s more productive to complete a reading assignment in one sitting and then move on to the class discussion board.
Use Tools That Support Time Management
School, even by itself, demands students account for a lot of moving parts. Add a job and family obligations and you’ve got a lot of juggling going on. That’s why time management tools can prove especially useful to online students.
Old-fashioned to-do lists can help online students keep track of assignment deadlines and test dates. Students may also find digital calendars useful; such calendars can send notification reminders about homework and other important tasks.
Additionally, students can take advantage of time management apps that allow users to prioritize assignments according to deadlines and other factors. These apps often integrate with programs such as Google Drive and Dropbox, making it easy to attach files and sync devices.
The app Remember The Milk, for example, lets users clone and color-code tasks, as well break up large projects with subtasks. It also allows users to delegate tasks to others, something especially helpful for students who are assigned group projects or who simultaneously manage households.
Get Familiar with Your Online Course
Though the design of online courses can vary, virtual classes typically have common components that students should be familiar with.
Learning Management Systems
Online classes take place on platforms known as learning management systems. From these platforms, students access course materials and communicate with classmates and instructors. Different learning management systems, such as Canvas and Blackboard, have their own unique setups and features.
Students in online degree programs should spend time familiarizing themselves with their university’s learning management systems. This means experimenting with the platform’s technological tools, such as progress mapping, which allows students to see what they’ve learned and what’s ahead. It also means browsing through online classrooms to find course materials and discussion forums, as well as locate where to take tests and submit assignments.
Asynchronous vs. Synchronous Learning
Asynchronous learning may include prerecorded lectures and self-paced learning modules. Students can complete these tasks on their own schedule, as long as they do so by specified deadlines. Students can connect with professors and other students through digital messages and discussion boards.
Synchronous learning, on the other hand, happens in real time. Synchronous learning in online education requires students to appear in an online classroom at a specific time. Synchronous activities may include livestreamed lectures and live chat rooms. These opportunities give students a chance to ask questions and get immediate feedback.
Some online degree programs focus on either asynchronous or synchronous learning, while others combine elements of both learning structures. To take full advantage of asynchronous and synchronous learning, consider the following advice:
- Pace out asynchronous learning tasks. Avoid letting them build up, and try to log in to class every day. Get started on asynchronous tasks early, so if questions arise, there’s time to get answers for them.
- For synchronous classes, keep your camera on. This helps with accountability. Also, to stay focused, close all browser windows and tabs not directly relevant to a lesson.
Virtual lectures may include screencasting: a software that allows instructors to record themselves performing tasks on their screens along with audio explanations. This can provide important demonstrations that help students understand content. Virtual lectures may also include interactive components, such as breakout discussion groups or quizzes.
Students should treat virtual lectures as they would in-person lessons. This means taking notes and jotting down questions. Students who prefer typing their notes to writing them out by hand may give Dualless a try. This free Chrome extension allows students to split their screens in two, making it easy to watch a lecture in one tab and take notes in the other.
Discussion forums give students a chance to interact with their classmates and process ideas and class content. Instructors may ask students to share their opinions and interpretations of articles, primary source materials, or pieces of literature on discussion forums. They may also post open-ended or pointed class questions for students to respond to in discussion forums.
Students typically need to initiate their own posts and respond to the posts of others in a thoughtful way. This back-and-forth communication takes time, so don’t wait until the last minute to join in. Check in regularly, and follow the posts of other students. This will help spark ideas and may offer deepened understanding of course materials.
Create a Personalized Study Space
Studying outside of a traditional environment may take some getting used to, but it helps if students take a moment to consider how and where they learn best. Then, they can set up a comfortable and productive study space.
Choose an Environment That Supports Concentration
Students should designate a study space that supports their concentration. For some that means creating a home office and wearing noise-canceling headphones. For others that means heading to a local café or library. Whatever the case, designating a specific space away from distracting temptations can help students establish effective study routines and get into a study mindset quickly.
Distractions such as smartphones, notifications, social media, and family members can eat away at a student’s ability to concentrate. However, with the right strategies and tools, these distractions can be minimized.
First, students should turn off the TV, close chat windows and online games, and log off social media during study sessions. To tame the wandering mind, students can use browser extensions that block them from accessing time-wasting websites for designated time periods. Additionally, many apps allow users to place restrictions on their use of email or other distracting apps.
Finally, students can discuss their study needs with family members and coordinate times free of interruption.
Among other valuable tips for taking online classes comes one addressing the role of participation. While virtual courses may not occur in physical classrooms, they still allow for and demand active participation from students.
Some students make the mistake of not treating online classes as they would any other. As a result, they miss out on learning opportunities and may perform poorly. Active participation can take many forms, from building relationships with instructors and classmates to engaging in lively discussions in chat rooms.
Get to Know the People in Your Class
Students shouldn’t let the virtual nature of online classes stop them from reaching out to fellow classmates and professors. Interaction plays a key role in the learning process.
Sending emails to professors to ask questions or share ideas gives students a chance to get insightful feedback. Additionally, students shouldn’t hesitate to ask instructors for help when they need it. They should also stay on top of their emails and other communication systems, such as the inbox of their learning management system. This way they won’t miss important notices or addendums to the syllabus.
Students can also connect to their fellow classmates via chat rooms and emails. There, they can discuss course lectures and collaborate on class projects. Students can also form virtual study groups to prepare for exams or review challenging material. Some strategies for setting up virtual study groups include the following:
- Choosing a meeting platform, such as Google Hangouts or Zoom
- Setting up study goals for each session
- Delegating roles to keep everyone accountable
- Mixing in some fun to break the ice (by creating a course-specific Kahoot quiz, for example)
Seek Meaningful Opportunities for Discussion
Seeking meaningful opportunities for discussion will enrich a student’s experience in an online class. Students can submit questions about virtual lectures to initiate conversations, or they may volunteer to participate in fishbowl discussions. In a fishbowl discussion, students grouped inside the “fishbowl” actively dialogue around a topic. A second group of students observe the discussion with the goal of focusing their energy on being an active listener and taking notes. Students take turns in each role, allowing them to practice being both contributors and listeners.
When in online discussion forums, students can respond to posts from classmates with questions, comments, and compliments. They can also avoid submitting a cluster of posts all at once simply to meet course requirements. Instead, they can engage in discussions more regularly, so real ideas have a chance to germinate.
Make Your Online Classes Count
Students considering remote degree programs can make the most out of their e-learning experiences by following key tips for taking online classes. With expanding online degree offerings and the flexible nature of distance learning, students with busy lives have more opportunities to get an education and advance their careers than ever before.
Learn more about Maryville University’s many online degree programs to realize your educational and professional goals.